Scholz seals deal to crown career as German chancellor

The Associated Press
Social Democratic Party, SPD, chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz speaks at a joint news conference in Berlin on Wednesday.

BERLIN (AP) — Olaf Scholz is set to become post-World War II Germany’s ninth chancellor, crowning a career that has seen him serve in a string of top government posts, after leading his party to an election comeback that appeared hugely unlikely just a few months ago.

The 63-year-old on Wednesday sealed a deal for his center-left Social Democrats to lead Germany’s next government in a coalition with the environmentalist Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats. The agreement followed relatively quick talks that were disciplined and discreet, qualities that reflect Scholz’s own image.

Scholz has a terse, no-nonsense approach typical of his home city of Hamburg, where he once worked as a lawyer — an even more sober style than that of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel. He joined the Social Democratic Party at 17 and was first elected to parliament in 1998.

He is unflappable and unshakably self-confident, but no master of rhetoric. During a turbulent stint as the Social Democrats’ general secretary in the early 2000s, he earned the nickname “Scholzomat” for what critics said was a habit of constantly repeating the same phrases in support of then-Chancellor Gehard Schroeder’s welfare-state trims and economic reforms, which faced dissent within the party.

Scholz’s experience, attention to detail and sometimes technocratic image became an asset during this year’s election campaign, in which he led the long-struggling Social Democrats from third place in polls to a narrow win in the Sept. 26 election.

He was helped by a series of gaffes and slips by his two opponents — Armin Laschet, the leader of Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats, and Annalena Baerbock, who was making the Greens’ first run for the chancellery.

The Social Democrats’ stock rose as Scholz, the finance minister and vice chancellor in Merkel’s government, calmly ran through a largely accident-free campaign and turned in unspectacular but solid performances in three televised pre-election debates.

He also appeared to portray himself as Merkel’s natural successor, although he belongs to a different party. At one point, he posed with the outgoing chancellor’s trademark “Merkel diamond” folded-hands gesture in an “interview without words” for the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

Scholz first served in the national government from 2007-9 as Merkel’s labor minister, during the global financial crisis. Germany kept down unemployment, notably by using a government-backed salary support program to keep people on companies’ payrolls. The same device served it well during the coronavirus pandemic, in which Scholz has helped guide Germany’s economic response as finance minister.

Scholz became the mayor of Hamburg, Germany’s second-biggest city, in 2011. He won back the traditional Social Democratic stronghold after years of center-left disarray in Hamburg, saying his party knew that “if you order leadership from me, you get it.”

A low point was Hamburg’s hosting of the 2017 Group of 20 summit, remembered largely for widespread rioting by hard-left protesters. Scholz had previously dismissed worries about the event.

The following year, he was elevated to the No. 2 job in Merkel’s government after his party reluctantly ditched a pledge to go into opposition. As finance minister, Scholz was a driving force behind moves to place a global minimum tax of at least 15% on large companies and led efforts to cushion the pandemic’s financial impact. But he also drew criticism over the collapse last year of payment processing company Wirecard.

The pragmatic Scholz ran for the Social Democrats’ leadership in 2019 but was spurned by members in favor of a left-leaning duo, Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans. However, the party put that contest behind it and had no hesitation in turning to him last year as its candidate to succeed Merkel.

Political opponent-turned-ally Christian Lindner, the leader of the pro-business Free Democrats and Scholz’s designated successor as finance minister, said Wednesday that negotiators “experienced him as a strong leadership personality who has the experience and professionality to lead this country.”

“Olaf Scholz will be a strong chancellor for Germany,” he said.